The perks of championship success can be extremely enjoyable and the Fort Fairfield girls basketball team has experienced several over the last four weeks.
But the Tigers, who won the school’s first state championship — boys or girls — this winter, perhaps enjoyed the ultimate thrill last Thursday as coach Larry Gardner’s club was in the audience for President Barack Obama’s healthcare speech at the Portland Expo.
The Tigers were hooked up with the tickets through Congressman Mike Michaud and his staff. The team was going to be heading south Friday for a Maine Red Claws game in Portland and to tour the statehouse in Augusta.
Tyler Clark, a state representative from Easton, helped get the tickets after learning of the trip as he sent an e-mail to Ed Gilman, who coordinates Michaud’s media appearances.
“They ended up getting 20 tickets and they came from Michaud’s allotment,” said Gardner, explaining the Congressman was granted 40 tickets. “It was eye-opening for all the kids to be that close in that atmosphere.”
Senior co-captain Courtney Churchill learned a few things from President Obama’s speech that go beyond the classroom.
“I didn’t really know a lot about the healthcare bill, but I learned a lot about student loans,” she said. “I don’t want to be a poor [college] student next year.”
Classmate Kelsie Wilson pointed to the historical aspects of seeing the nation’s first African-American president.
“This is history. He’s made history and its continuing. It’s one of those things you can’t wait to tell your children or grandchildren about.”
Fort Fairfield’s contingent wound up with “blue” tickets, which mean the team and coaching staff stood in front of the line of people waiting to enter the Expo, and once inside, got prime seating locations.
“We noticed all of the bleachers where [Obama was to speak] were empty, they started putting some state political people [back there], and the Secret Service comes up to us and asks, ‘would you like to sit behind?’” said Gardner. “We were facing 3,000 people and all the video TV cameras.”
The Tigers were hoping to present President Obama with a team-autographed basketball, a state championship jacket and a signed team photo, but weren’t able to bring any of them inside the Expo.
“We couldn’t even get in the door with them, the Secret Service said no, none of that’s going through,” Gardner said.
When they walked up toward the Expo, Churchill and her teammates had to stroll up the side of the street on which protestors were holding signs and screaming.
“That was definitely interesting,” he said. “I felt so out of place over there, they were screaming back and forth and the signs they had were crazy. I would never think to write something mean like that to the President.”
The Tigers were semi-aware that Obama is not only a big basketball fan, but also pretty good on the hardwood.
“I had shown them a video of him playing 3-on-3 in Indiana back in 2008, and I think he had some pretty good moves,” Gardner said.
Even though the Tigers didn’t get to meet President Obama, memories of a chance to see him speak and sit 20 feet away from him will remain with the team for a long time.
“We didn’t actually get to meet him, but it was definitely an opportunity of a lifetime,” Churchill said.
The next day the Tigers were invited to tour the State House in Augusta and met Gov. John Baldacci.
“We presented him with a picture and a state championship sweatshirt with logos on it, and he was very hospitable and very entertaining,” Gardner said. “We were there for like three hours.”
After meeting the governor and members of his staff, the Tigers headed back to Portland to take in a Maine Red Claws game on Friday night, where they were recognized on the court.
“That was really awesome,” Wilson said. “I didn’t know we were going to go on the court. The bleachers were full, there were people everywhere. I was just like ‘Oh my gosh, they’re all here to watch [the Red Claws] and then they see us [from] the little town of Fort Fairfield.”
But with all the PR comes a lot of time on the road, and the Tigers didn’t return to Fort Fairfield until 2 a.m. Saturday, which can be somewhat of a grind as many team members have started spring sports.
“It’s definitely been fun but also kind of hard too,” Churchill said. “I’m doing softball and others are doing track [or] softball, so it’s very time-consuming.”
Wilson is embarking on a different path this spring as she’ll be participating in the Miss Fort Fairfield pageant, and if she wins that, she’ll participate in the Miss Potato Blossom pageant at the town’s Potato Blossom festival this summer.